Biographies for Children
hen Robert Fulton was a little boy in Pennsylvania, he never minded being called to his lessons with his mother, for she was a famous Irish beauty, and Robert loved to look at her. She was good-natured too and told him far more interesting stories than he found in the lesson books. It was quite a different matter when Robert was sent, at the age of eight, to a school kept by Caleb Johnson, a Quaker gentleman.
With Mr. Johnson, Robert found lessons rather stupid affairs. He missed the stories his mother always wove in with the books they read together. Besides, Robert had taken some toys and old clocks to pieces, and he was busy planning how he could make some himself, if he but had the tools. Sometimes Caleb Johnson spoke to him two or three times before Robert heard him. The old Quaker thought the boy was wasting precious time, so he feruled him every day.
This was way back, just before the Revolutionary War, and in those days every school-teacher kept a stout stick on his desk, called a ferule, with which to slap the naughty pupils' hands. The ferule always made the hand burn and sting, and if the teacher were harsh, he sometimes blistered a boy's hand. One time, after the Quaker had used the ferule on Robert until his own arm ached, he cried: "There, that will make you do something, I guess."
"But," answered Robert, "I came here, Sir, to have something beaten into my head, not into my knuckles."
Robert was keener on making things than on learning lessons. One morning he did not get to the schoolhouse until nearly noon, and Mr. Johnson exclaimed: "Now, Mr. Tardy-Boy, where have you been?"
"At Mr. Miller's shop, pounding out a lead for my pencil. I want you to look at it. It is the best one I ever had!" And the teacher had to admit that he never saw a better one.
Another time Robert told the Quaker teacher that he was so busy thinking up new ideas that he did not have any room in his mind for storing away what was in dusty books!
Robert loved pictures. There was a large portrait of his beautiful mother, painted by Benjamin West, which hung in the parlor, and he had often wished to try and make one like it. He had not been long at school before a seat-mate brought to school some paints and brushes belonging to an older brother. As the war was waging, the people had hard work to get luxuries or money to buy them with, so Robert quite envied the boy such a prize. He begged to try them, and he made such wonderful pictures, pictures so much better than any one else in school could make, that the owner gave the whole outfit to him.
About this time Robert was always buying little packages of quicksilver. He was trying experiments with it, but he wouldn't tell the other boys what they were. So they nicknamed him "Quicksilver Bob." Of course, the men in shops where firearms were made and repaired were very busy. "Quicksilver Bob" went to these shops every day. The men liked him, and as he talked with them, he often made suggestions that they were glad to follow. "That boy will do something big some of these days," they would say to each other.
When Robert was fourteen, he met a boy who worked in a machine shop, by the name of Christopher Grumpf. This boy was eighteen, and his father was a fine fisherman who knew where the largest number of fish could be caught, and he took the two boys up and down the river in a flat-bottomed boat that was pushed along by the means of two long poles. The boat was clumsy, and this poling made the boys' arms ache. Robert kept thinking there must be a better way of getting that boat through the water. He went away to visit his aunt but worked all the time on a set of paddles and the model of a boat on which they could be built. He tried a set of these paddles on Mr. Grumpf's boat when he got home, and they worked so well that Mr. Grumpf never used the poles again on his fishing trips. He found the paddles saved him from having lame muscles.
Robert and his playmates had fine times watching the two thousand troops stationed in Lancaster. These were British prisoners. Some of them were kept in the barracks, the officers lodged in private houses, and the Hessian troops (some of whom had their wives with them) lived in square huts of mud and sod. This colony of Hessians greatly interested the boys of the village, and Robert drew capital pictures of them, for he had been practising sketching and painting all his spare time. In fact, he decided, at the age of seventeen, to go to the city of Philadelphia and make a business of painting portraits and miniatures. For four years he lived there, earning a good deal of money and sending the greater part of it home to his mother.
Among the many pleasant friends he made in Philadelphia was Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Franklin and most of his wealthy patrons advised Robert to go to Europe and take painting lessons of Benjamin West. Before he went, Robert bought a farm for his mother and sisters. He never forgot to see that his mother was comfortable.
Robert had been thinking for years how fine it would be if boats did not have to depend on sails but could be sent through the water by steam. Over in Europe he met a lord who was making plans for canals, and while talking with him he grew more interested than ever in ways of traveling by water. So although he painted enough portraits to lay away money for a rainy day, he studied all the rules for building canals and about the machinery that goes in boats. Certainly he was busier than when, as a boy, he told Caleb Johnson there was no time for dusty books when his mind was holding so many new ideas, for he learned three or four languages, invented the first panorama ever shown in France, a machine for cutting marble, another for twisting rope, and a torpedo boat to be used in warfare.
Only you must not think that because he had so many clever notions about the implements of war he believed in nations killing each other off--no, indeed. He stood for peace more than a hundred and fifty years ago, before there was so much said and done to encourage it. He said: "The art of Peace should be the study of every young American!"
He stayed seven years in France and was pointed out wherever he went as "that talented young foreigner." He lived most of the time with an American gentleman, Mr. Joel Barlow, and his wife. They were very fond of Fulton and believed that the experiments he was trying,--to make vessels go by steam, would prove a success. They nicknamed him "Toot," because every evening, in his room, he was running a tiny model of a steam-engine across his work table, which gave shrill whistles now and then.
For as much as thirty years men in Europe and America had been trying to make vessels run by steam when Fulton finally succeeded in doing it. He built a boat which was fitted with a steam-engine and gave it a trial on the river Seine. Something broke, which let the vessel down on to the river's bottom, but Fulton soon had another puffing its way up and down a section of the Seine, while the people on the banks cheered and wondered.
Fulton returned to America and built a steamer which he intended to run on the Hudson River. He named it the Clermont, but it was generally spoken of as "Fulton's Folly" by the crowds who watched its building. The loungers who stood about jeering at the inventor were so disrespectful as they watched the last few days' work that Fulton feared they would smash it in pieces and hired a guard to protect it.
It was four years after Fulton had shown the model boat on the Seine, in France, that he started the Clermont up the Hudson River, in his own country. There were not thirty people in New York city who believed the steamer would go a mile in an hour. A few friends went aboard with the inventor, to make the trial trip, but they looked frightened and worried. The Clermont was a clumsy affair; its machinery creaked and groaned; no whistle seemed to work, so a horn was blown whenever the boat approached a landing. The crew carried on enough wood at each landing to last till they reached another. This wood was pine, and whenever the engineer stirred the coals, a lot of sparks flew into the air, and black smoke poured from the funnel. The crews on the ordinary sailing vessels were afraid of this strange craft that went chugging by them, and some of the sailors were in such a panic that they left their vessels and ran into the woods, declaring there was a horrible monster afloat on the water.
Well, the Clermont proved a great convenience on the Hudson River. It ran as a packet boat for years, and Fulton built other steamers. He realized that it would mean a great deal to America if some quick, cheap method of carrying people and freight along the great Missouri and Mississippi rivers could be used. His invention of the steamboat has given him the name of the "Father of Steam Navigation," and it has been a blessing to the whole world.
Besides being a wonderful inventor, Robert Fulton was a polished gentleman. He was tall and handsome, like his mother, as gentle as a child, and he had a charming way of talking, so whether he spoke of America, France, steamboats, or pictures, there was always silence in the room.
Think of the old Quaker teacher, Caleb Johnson, trying to ferule a few ideas into Robert Fulton's head! No doubt Mr. Johnson was worried, but Robert's head proved to be an uncommonly wise one.